Benson: Policy makers need to examine sex offender program

Lucinda Jesson, Dennis Benson
Dennis Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, and Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson testified during a Minnesota House committee Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 in St. Paul, Minn., on the sex offender program. Benson has announced his retirement.

The outgoing executive director of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program said Wednesday the state has a long way to go in making policy changes to improve the program, one of the state's most controversial.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Dennis Benson said he is proud of the strides his clinical team has made in ``cutting edge'' treatment for sex offenders and claimed dramatic progress in program operations during his tenure.

But, he said, it's incumbent upon lawmakers to review everything from how offenders are referred for commitment to whether the state can provide alternatives to the extremes of civil commitment or release.

"These are very, very difficult issues and they take time," he said.

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Benson advised lawmakers to take a serious look at a 2011 legislative auditor's report that he said provides recommendations and a road map for improving the program in the future.

"We will never depoliticize this program. It is a highly, highly political area of discussion," he said. "But we should do everything we can to depoliticize the process, of who comes in and who goes out.

Clarence Opheim
Clarence Opheim, a civilly committed sex offender, is the only offender to gain a provisional release from the state sex offender program. He was released to a halfway house in March 2012.
Courtesy of Golden Valley Police Department

"Hopefully we can keep this program constitutionally sound, and keep us out of harm's way with respect to the eyes of the court," he added.

Benson will retire from his job at the sex offender program June 5, after 38 years of working for the state. He began his state service as an officer with the Department of Corrections and served as a corrections deputy commissioner for 12 years before going on to lead the sex offender program in 2008.

The program allows the state to pursue civil confinement for the most dangerous sex offenders deemed likely to strike again. As of April 1, there were 641 people in the program.

The program faces constitutional challenges from critics who claim it's little more than a life sentence disguised as treatment. This year, the program saw its first provisional discharge in more than a decade, but Benson said the discharge of one person is not an indicator of success.

"Quite frankly, I don't think one is enough. But it is a beginning," he said.

"One of the problems in Minnesota is you are either civilly committed or you are released to the streets."

He applauded his clinical team and said the percentage of offenders participating in treatment has improved during his tenure.

Treatment for sex offenders is costly because it is tailored to each individual, but Benson worked to reduce the per-diem cost by about $100 to its current cost of $298 a day.

Benson said lawmakers need to question why Minnesota has one of the largest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita. He also said policymakers could create other options for offenders, so judges aren't faced with the extremes of either civilly committing someone or turning an offender out on the streets.

"For the most part, the people that are in our program are very, very difficult people," he said. "But I think it's much more complicated than saying, 'Well, let's just not civilly commit somebody.' One of the problems in Minnesota is you are either civilly committed or you are released to the streets."

He said there have been discussions about possible changes in sentencing of sex offenders.

In addition, he said, the state must not lose sight of the importance of prevention, to keep people from committing sexually violent acts in the first place.

He said the staff he's worked with over the years truly care about these marginalized populations and work hard to do the right thing while balancing the need for public safety.

While he acknowledged that this year, an election year, wasn't the time to get policies changed, he said he has confidence in the legislative process.

"It can be frustrating at times, but I have been impressed with leadership on both sides of the aisle with respect to this issue," he said. "I believe ultimately the state of Minnesota will make good decisions on how we manage this."